Sake in the spotlight

20 Jun 2015
2 min read
The Japanese drink’s balance of sweetness, acidity and umami make sake one of the beverage world’s most flexible pairing partners, writes Melinda Joe for FOUR Asia & Australia.

When talking about sake pairing, the Japanese have a saying: “Sake doesn’t fight with food.” There’s a lot of truth to this statement. Made from riceratherthangrapes,sakelacks the harsh tannins and astringency found in some wines that can lead to disastrous clashes. (To test this theory, try serving a robust red from Bordeaux with an oily piece of mackerel—if you dare.) The drink’s balance of sweetness, acidity and umami makes sake one of the beverage world’s most flexible pairing partners, able to harmonise with meat, fish, cheese and pickles with equal aplomb.

Umami is the key to sake’s versatility. While wine tends to have higher concentrations of puckering compounds such as malic and tartaric acids, sake is rich in amino acids, in particular glutamate, the substance most closely associated with umami. The sake-making process involves multiple parallel fermentation, which is every bit as complicated as it sounds. At the heart of sake brewing is koji, the catalyst that breaks down the starches in rice into fermentable sugars. Made by propagating a benign mould called koji- kin (variants of which are used to make soy sauce and miso, among other staples in the Japanese pantry) onto steamed rice, the koji is added to a bubbling batch of yeast starter, along with plain rice and water. The frenzy of enzymatic activity that ensues gives rise to the umami-rich, complex flavour profile of sake. The drink has a great affinity for proteins and fermented foods such as miso and cheese. The best sake pairings leverage umami’s ability to help your tongue taste in three dimensions.

Naturally, sake is the perfect match for Japanese food. Recently, however, more and more chefs are experimenting with the drink in different contexts. From New York to Stockholm, top restaurants such as Per Se and Frantzén are offering sake with contemporary Western dishes. Ironically, the trend has been slower to catch on in Japan, where sake consumption has been declining since the 1970s. But thanks in part to sake’s growing popularity abroad, the last four years have seen a renewed interest domestically. Although it’s still relatively uncommon to find sake on the drinks menu at non-Japanese restaurants, L’Effervescence in Tokyo showcases nihonshu (which translates literally as the liquor of Japan) alongside chef Shinobu Namae’s modern French cuisine, which incorporates seasonal ingredients sourced from around Japan. Guests now have the option of choosing a sake-pairing course to accompany the tasting menu.

“From the beginning, our focus has been on local products. I’ve always had the idea of pairing sake with our dishes, but first we needed to be more established as a Frenchrestaurant. In the future,we plan to do even more,” Namae says.

The food at L’Effervescence, with its emphasis on natural flavours and balance, is particularly well suited to sake pairing. A voracious reader who has travelled extensively and worked abroad (most notably as a sous- chef at the Fat Duck), Namae is one of the most open- minded Japanese chefs in Tokyo today. Before opening L’Effervescence, which earned its second Michelin star this year, Namae had been at Michel Bras Restaurant Toya, the French chef ’s acclaimed restaurant in Hokkaido. Namae’s style of cooking reflects his international experience while retaining an essence of his Japanese identity.

“Our cuisine is about feeling the seasons, which is why it works well with the light and natural character of sake,”says beverage director Motohiro Okoshi. “Sake is also seasonal, and we can enjoy different varieties at different times of the year. It is truly the pride of Japan.”